Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released.
If you've been emotionally connected to Los Angeles' underground soul and beat scene in the past 20 years, chances are you've been in Carlos Niño's presence. The producer and multi-instrumentalist's resume is filled with important radio programs (KPFK's Spaceways, as well as the web-based Dublab, which he co-founded), events (producing DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist's legendary Brainfreeze show in 2000), and collaborations (treasured jazz players like Hamid Drake and Phil Ranelin, electronic producers like Daedalus and Dntel, New Age music original Iasos, Doors drummer John Densmore and many others). His sterling reputation is only one reason why, when Niño calls on "friends" to put together an album, quality, relevance and passion are a given. The only question that remains: "What's the musical direction?"
On Flutes, Echoes, It's All Happening!, the answer is spiritual enlightenment and the various sonic paths that lead its players and listeners to a higher state of consciousness. If the notion that a specially blended mix — of wistful New Age harps and percolating Space Age strings, of beat-heavy bass and nature sounds, of astral jazz exploration and sonic black holes — can make a difference in your life, then you may have arrived at nirvana. Because this mix is an ascendant, often moving 40 minutes of music.
As a constructed piece, Flutes is a collage, as Niño splices together broadcasts, live performances, new and old studio recordings, other people's leftovers and newly added layers to create beautiful new creatures. As an emotionally serious piece of music, it attempts to find peace through a wall of sound — and not have it end up sounding boring, samey or preachy. The closest thing to a cheap thrill here lies at the close of "It's All Happening," the album's most rhythmically forceful track. What begins with a spectacular Madlib beat moves through an awesome patch led by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson's strings and ends with Dexter Story's analog synth making a hyperleap into the void; as the final synthetic chord continues stretching and fading, on comes Niño with the late-night radio-DJ whisper-voice. "Wow," he says, the smile audible before he takes a deep breath, suggesting that he may have been holding his during the jam. "Woooooo. Here we are, man, it's all happening. Whoa. Wow!" That last exclamation is suddenly fed through an echoing voice filter to cut the transcendence short.
Far more often, the transcendence lingers and the music's more mundane notions are what get dismissed. At play here is a continuity between elements that many might never have bothered to group together in the first place: how the keyboards and harps played by Iasos and Atwood-Ferguson's strings and arrangements share in the high-end tone colors, or how the mild chaos of Story's synths is matched by the exploratory nature of Kamasi Washington's saxophone, or how Niño places nature atmospherics in the corners through much of the album. Sometimes that continuity is expressed in the programming and sequencing — in the way "Alice's Chord," essentially a trio of Yaakov Levy's piano, Story's drums and an ever-present set of chimes, forms a meditative tide before blending into "Joyous Gratitude," in which Kamasi Washington leads a one-time assembly called the Cosmic Band toward celestial punctuation. Sometimes it's expressed in contrasts, as when "4 Directions Collage," a spotlight turn by Atwood-Ferguson that posits strings for a dark and stormy night next to an arrangement more suited for romantic comedy, is immediately followed by "Aetheriaztlan," a slice of Brian Eno-esque Fourth World ethno-ambience that features the Aztec group Aztlan Unearthed.
In essence, Niño is the conductor. The party may be his, but by its very design, there's no host or owner, just a shared sense of direction. The selflessness is part of the Happening. Toward that end, the album's longest vocal bit belongs to Iasos, a mixed-metaphor lecture in "Waterfall" that ties together the source of global energy to nature and love; and its most heartfelt performance is in "On Into The Rise," another excerpt of Washington leading the Cosmic Band in a radio studio. That group (Niño, Washington, Story and Atwood-Ferguson, along with vocalist Dwight Trible, keyboardist Mark de Clive-Lowe and bassist Brandon Eugene Owens) came together for the finale of Niño's Spaceways radio program in March 2015; here, the piece is an excerpt from a 30-minute improvisation. Its very existence speaks to Niño's stature in the community, and to the values he espouses. Flutes, Echoes, It's All Happening! is a great expression of those values.